How to Make the Best-Ever Matzo Ball Soup, According to Legendary Jewish Cookbook Author Joan Nathan

Matzo ball soup

Joan Nathan is synonymous with Jewish cooking. The award-winning food writer and cookbook author has written for a range of publications, including The New York Times, hosted her own PBS cooking show, and written a dozen cookbooks, including her newest, My Life in Recipes, a collection of recipes and personal stories.

When she was writing the book she looked back through her life—and also went back through generations of family members—to tell her story and theirs through food. One of the most personal recipes in the book is a classic Jewish dish, matzo ball soup.

"From the time I was a little kid, the aroma of matzo ball soup meant it's a holiday or it's Friday night or it's something special," says Nathan. "And it's also very comforting and satisfying." Her go-to recipe pulls inspiration from her mother's recipe and also includes flavors that reflect her German-Jewish ancestors. In her collection of old handwritten cookbooks she found that many German-Jewish matzo balls included dried ginger and nutmeg. She kept the nutmeg and swapped in fresh ginger for dried, adding her influence to the recipe.

The matzo balls themselves are also very specific to Nathan. Matzo balls are typically either "sinkers" or "floaters," but Nathan prefers a dumpling that's somewhere in between those two extremes—what she calls "al dente" matzo balls. "The sinkers are very heavy and often are not cooked long enough, which is why they're heavy," she says. "The very light ones, they sometimes put baking soda in the mix, or they use soda water. To me, those are too light. I don't like that light. And again, you cook them a longer time to make them lighter. I just like exactly al dente."

All of Nathan's careful thought and attention to detail creates a next-level matzo ball soup. To help you dial in your recipe we quizzed her a little bit more to get the tips you need to upgrade the dish in your kitchen.

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How to Make the Best-Ever Matzo Ball Soup, According to Cookbook Author Joan Nathan

Start with these tips and tricks for matzo ball soup perfection.

Skip the mix. Nathan's mother-in-law used matzo ball mix, but Nathan prefers to use matzo meal so she can dial in exactly the flavors she wants.

• Schmaltz it up. To really amp up the chicken flavor in the dish, Nathan likes to use chicken fat (aka schmaltz) in her matzo balls. "Chicken fat's the easiest thing in the world," she says. "You can either buy it or when you're making your next chicken, or you're making your chicken soup for the matzo balls, just refrigerate cooked soup overnight and take the chicken fat off the soup from the top and you just need a tablespoon or two." If you don't want to use chicken fat, you can also sub in vegetable oil or vegan butter.

Add some spice. Nathan loves to use grated nutmeg and fresh ginger ("a lot of it," she says) when making her matzo balls. The spices pair beautifully with the chicken broth. She sometimes adds chopped dill or parsely to the mix for a hit of freshness.

Let it rest. Nathan makes and chills her matzo ball mix at least three hours ahead, but prefers to make it the night before. The extra time helps the flavors mix, mingle and mellow and ensures that the matzo meal is hydrated.

Cook them in water. Nathan makes her own chicken soup or broth for serving the matzo balls, but she prefers to cook them in boiling water first, then add them to the soup. Why? On the off chance that some of the matzo balls don't hold together, you're only making a pot of water murky, instead of your precious chicken broth.

Check the size. Nathan is pretty specific about her preferred size of matzo ball. "I form balls that are bigger than a walnut, but smaller than a golf ball," she says.

Don't get stuck. To prevent the matzo ball mixture from sticking to her hands, Nathan dips her hands in cold water before shaping them. As she rolls them, they go right into the boiling salted water.

Cook them to 'al dente.' To get the Goldilocks texture that's somewhere between a "floater" and a "sinker," add the matzo balls to the boiling water cover the pot and wait about 20 minutes. "When they're done, the mazto balls should pop to the top of the water," says Nathan. "And I can sort of tell if they're almost done, but take one out and open it and see if it's cooked all the way through. And taste it. If it tastes okay, then it's done."

Plan ahead. Matzo balls freeze well, which makes it easy to have the classic soup anytime the craving hits. "I sometimes freeze them in the soup, so the dish is totally done," says Nathan. "Or you can freeze them on a cookie sheet and then just throw them in a freezer bag. But, in a way, it's better to do it in the soup, if you can."

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